Saag Paneer or Palak Paneer is standard fare in Indian restaurants around the world. In my opinion, Indian restaurants ruin Indian food for the large part. First, most of what you can get is Mughlai (Northwestern) cuisine, which is inspired by the festive foods served in the Mughal Courts of Old Delhi. The other great cuisines of India are really not represented and this is a shame. Second, mughlai food is rich stuff and uses milk products (yogurt, butter, clarified butter/ghee and cream) liberally, but judiciously. Other flavors are allowed a prime spot and make each dish unique, but still Mughlai. Not so in most Indian restaurants, were the ready availability of cream, ghee etc. make excess easy. So Saag Paneer, which ought to be predominantly flavored with yogurt, tomato and spinach and finished with a bit of cream, is essentially turned into creamed spinach with Indian spices. This excess of oil, butter and cream leaves you feeling not so good as you exit an Indian restaurant.
Real people don’t eat like this as every one knows. Homemade saag paneer is mostly enriched with yogurt, which brigtens the dark and metallic taste of the spinach.
The non-traditional version that I describe below gets away from the cream fest and packs in as many vegetables in a cubic mm. as possible. I used yellow squash and chard stems here as thickeners and then packed in the onions, tomatoes and spinach. The paneer/cubed Indian non-melting cheese is added in the end and the saag wraps around it as it thickens.
1/2 pound fresh baby spinach – about 6-7 packed cups, thoroughly rinsed.
3 large vine ripened tomatoes
1 cup cherry tomatoes
5 chard stems (no leaves). Omit if you dont have them or substitute with an extra summer squash
2 small summer squashes, peeled, seeded and chopped coarsely
1/4 small bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 anaheim pepper, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 inch ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, rinsed (optional)
2 tbs. oil
1 tbs. butter
Seeds of 4 cardmoms, lightly crushed
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1/4 tsp. cinnamon powder
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. powdered cumin
1 tsp. Hungarian sweet paprika
Salt to taste
2 tbs. whole milk yogurt (I use Brown Cow)
1/2 cup water
1. Coarsely chop and then pulse the green peppers, peeled ginger and garlic in a food processor and set aside.
2. Next, coarsely chop and mince the onions in the food processor. Now you are ready to start cooking and can chop the rest of the stuff as you go along.
3. Heat oil and butter in a large pot, preferably a dutch oven and add the cardamom and cumin seeds, followed by the pepper, ginger, garlic mix. Lightly fry till fragrant, then add the onions and the cinnamon powder. While the onions are frying (about 5 min), pulse the chard stems and squash in the food processor to a coarse mince. Add to the onions and continue frying till the onion mixes begins to soften (another 10 min).
4. Meanwhile, pulse the tomatoes in the food processor till coarsely pureed. Add to the onion mix. Mix thoroughly , add about 1/2 tsp of salt, then cover the pot with a lid. Lower the flame to a medium low and let the tomatoes-onion mix melt to a mush-about 20 min. Then take of the lid and let most of the liquid dry off. You are now caramelizing the onions and tomatoes. Ideally you would continue this till the onions and tomatoes release oil- I can’t stand to wait, so I get half way and then get on with it. It tastes pretty good anyway.
5. Now add the turmeric, paprika, cumin and incorporate into the onion mix, frying 1-2 min. Then add the yogurt, a tbs. at a time and stir until fully incorporated-about 2-3 min more. Now add the spinach and 1/4 cup cilantro and mix again. Cover with a lid and allow the leaves to wilt -about 5 min or so. Let the spinach cook for another few minutes. Taste and adjust the salt.
6. While the spinach is cooking, brown the paneer cubes. You can either do this in a cast iron griddle, by adding a little bit of oil and then browning the paneer cubes on both sides (about 5-7 min total). Or you can deep fry the cubes for 2-3 min so that they are brown on all sides. Lightly salt the paneer cubes.
7. Add the remaining cilantro to the the spinach mix in the food processor. Put it back in the dutch oven, add the water and simmer for a few minutes. Then add the paneer. Simmer for a few minutes more. The sauce will thicken as it cools.
Serve with rice or any flat bread, along with raita or plain yogurt.
Use the saag as a basic sauce for potatoes, tofu or chicken, by simmering each in the saag and omitting the paneer.